Theatre Review – Maggie Smith returns to the London stage in A German Life, Bridge Theatre!

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Over the last decade, as theatregoing became an even greater passion, I’ve had the privilege of seeing so many of the iconic British greats on stage. Yet, there was always one that I wished I could see and yet I thought I’d missed my chance. That person was Dame Maggie Smith. She’s an actress intrinsically linked to my ’90s childhood through her film career of that period and someone whose stage career in past decades had me wishing I had a time machine! I remember reading in Nick Hytner’s book, Balancing Acts, that his biggest regret during his time running the National Theatre was not finding a role for Maggie Smith.

It was therefore unbelievable news to hear that he’d finally been able to right that regret at his new theatre, the Bridge Theatre and last week I finally ticked the biggest item off my theatre bucket list.

A German Life is a one-woman show, in which Smith plays Brunhilde Pomsel, who through unplanned twists and turns in her life found herself working in the Nazi Propaganda Bureau for Goebbels and over the course of 1 hour 40 minutes, we hear the story of her life, from young girl, determined to make her own way through a job, to a woman who ended up spending five years after World War Two interned by the Russian authorities.

The play starts with Smith entering the 1970s-style Germn kitchen set and taking a seat in a chair and what follows in Christopher Hampton’s new play is drawn from the testimony Pomsel gave to documentary filmmakers Christian Krones, Olaf Muller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer, who turned it in to the film A German Life. It isn’t clear if she’s talking to them, to an imaginary person, or simply to us, the audience, but by the end I felt as if she’d been talking directly to me; that it was just us sitting in that kitchen, as she told the story of her life.

Pomsel confesses early on that she tends to forget things now, which was an effective way too of giving a nod to the fact that some of the audience (including, I admit, myself) were wondering how, at 84, Dame Maggie Smith would cope with carrying a show on her  own. We needn’t have worried, as she is simply superb, so inhabiting the woman whose story we are hearing that you almost forget this isn’t just Maggie Smith talking about herself.

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Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Over the piece, you laugh with her at some of the anecdotes she’s remembered, while also gaining a chilling insight in to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s and how ordinary citizens were drawn in to their rhetoric. Knowing what we know now, it seems unbelievable that people could allow such dark and horrifying events to come to pass and yet, A German Life, feels frighteningly relevant to today’s world; a world in which intolerance, division and growing hostilities within our societies only seem to be getting worse. Part of the power of this play and Smith’s frank and honest performance is that you leave questioning whether you could have ended up in her shoes, caught up in events the way Brunhilde Pomsel was and for which she states she feels no guilt; she was simply a typist in an office doing a job. the fact it was in the Propaganda Bureau for Goebbels doesn’t make her responsible for the atrocities carried out by the regime she worked for and her attitude felt very authentic and refreshingly honest.

With just one person talking constantly for 100 minutes, in the wrong hands it could feel dull, or drawn out, but Smith demonstrates what an incredible performer she still is and all without moving from her chair. Yet, the fact Smith is in the same seat for the duration of the show doesn’t mean she doesn’t move, thanks to the clever set design from Anna Fleischle. It’s a testament to Smith’s performance, drawing me in so completely and the subtlety of the set design, that it took me over an hour to notice that the floor of the kitchen was moving forward, bringing the actress closer and closer to the audience as the play progressed. It only added to the feeling that you were being pulled in to this woman’s life and allowed Smith to engage with the 900-strong audience without having to move.

This certainly isn’t a comfortable show due to the story being told, but thanks to Smith’s superb performance, it is one that elicits so many emotions, from laughter, to sadness, to horror and more importantly, leaves you questioning what you would have done, while also leading you to realise that as the world seems to grow more extreme, we haven’t learnt nearly enough from that period of history as we should have. We may tell ourselves we’d never let it happen again, but A German Life tests that belief and leaves the audience considering the truth of that statement and feeling deeply uncomfortable at the answer.

Seeing Dame Maggie Smith on stage was a dream come true for me and she didn’t disappoint. If you are able to pick up a ticket, I urge you to do so.

A German Life continues at the Bridge Theatre until 11th May 2019. Although the show is “Sold out,” £15 day seats will be available from the theatre box office each morning from 10 a.m. (one per person), TodayTix is running a £20 lottery each morning too and a returns queue will start from 6 p.m. before every show. I also know of friends calling up the box office and being sold returns for later dates, so that’s always worth a try too. For more information, visit the theatre’s website: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-german-life/#overview

 

 

My 2017 Theatre Review – Memorable Moments

I’ve already set out my favourite productions of 2017, so this post will look back on the my most memorable moments, whether a performance, a scene, or a personal experience during a show, these are the moments that I’ll remember most from the last 12 months of theatregoing.

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1. David Tennant declaring he was “magnificently f*ckable” as Don Juan in Don Juan in Soho!

A theatre year is always a little more special for me when Mr Tennant is on the stage and earlier this year he took on the lothario Don Juan. It may not have made my favourite productions list, but he had some wonderful dialogue, this being my personal highlight!

2. The continued excitement and joy of the audience at Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Next spring Broadway will finally welcome the Harry Potter play to the stage (with me in the audience), but until then the only place to see it remains London and being lucky enough to return to see the show a few times this year (including the final show of the original cast and a trip to see the new one), I continue to love the atmosphere in the Palace Theatre. It’s one of the two happiest theatres in town and you can feel the buzz of excitement from everyone around you. It’s simply magical.

3. Realising about 15 minutes in to Hamilton that I was under its spell

The Palace is one of the two happiest theatres in town and since early December, the other is the Victoria Palace Theatre, now home to the mighty Hamilton. You can read my review and my end of year review for thoughts, but I will always remember the feeling of knowing that not only was the hype justified, but that I was watching something very special indeed.

4. Getting to see another of my favourite actors on stage for the first time

I made two trips to NYC this year, but the first was driven by one aim – to see Josh Charles on stage! I’ve been a fan of his film and TV work for quite a while now and couldn’t miss the chance to see him in The Antipodes at the wonderful Signature Theatre. And the cherry on the cake – getting a chance to speak to him afterwards, plus an autograph and photo. He was one of the most genuine actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to speak to and it made my trip!

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5. A final trip to Groundhog Day and frustration that Broadway didn’t appreciate it more

Poor poor Groundhog Day. If only it had stayed here in London. I know it’ll be back here soon enough, but I’ll always be a little sad that Andy Karl won’t get longer in the role of Phil Connors. He really was wonderful and I’m so pleased I had one last chance to see it earlier this year in NYC.

6. Ian McKellen bringing Gandalf back to life for a few minutes on stage!

In July, Ian McKellen helped raise money for the Park Theatre in London through a week of special performances on a one-man show about his life and career. It was a very special experience, the highlight being the opening: a pitch black theatre, Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score playing and the voice of Gandalf, as if back in the Mines of Moria, coming out of the darkness as McKellen walked on to the stage. Unforgettable!

7. Being on the front row of the first official performance at the new Bridge Theatre!

I’ve been looking forward to this new theatre opening ever since it was announced and being able to be at the first official performance (there were two soft opening performances put on early) of a new London theatre was quite a thrill. The smell of fresh paint and new leather and a whole new building to explore. I look forward to many more visits to come.

8. My front row seat experience for Network and having Bryan Cranston look me straight in the eyes from mere inches away

Network is on my list of favourites of the year and not only did I enjoy the play and its commanding lead actor’s performance, but this was made all the more special, when Mr Cranston ended up sitting behind me during one of the scenes, resulting in him giving a direct performance to those of us sitting around him for a few minutes.

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9. The brilliance of the final scene of Out There on the Fried Meat Ridge Road at the Trafalgar Studios

I won’t ruin it for those yet to see this lovely show, but the final moments were so clever and fun that it had me smiling long after I’d left the building. It’s a show that I’m so pleased I didn’t miss.

10. The OTT reaction of the Broadway audience to Bette Midler in Hello Dolly

Now, first things first, I enjoyed the show and I thought Bette Midler was fantastic, but what wasn’t quite as enjoyable was the reaction of the audience during the show. I know the NYC custom is to applaud the famous names on their first appearance on the stage (as annoying as I find it), but every time she appeared, everything she said or did, was met with prolonged applause and cheers. Ultimately it distracted me from the show and drove me crazy!

11. Witnessing Ben Platt sob his way through “Words Fail” in Dear Evan Hansen

Hello Dolly may have been a less than satisfying theatre experience, but the same couldn’t be said for Dear Evan Hansen (on both visits). I will never forget watching Ben Platt’s performance and Words Fail in particular, as he managed to sing so beautifully through sobs, as the audience sniffled along with him.

12. The thrill of the unexpected in Robert Icke’s Hamlet, particularly Laertes in that final duel

I’ve talked enough about how much I loved this production, but it was filled with moments that surprised me, despite having seen Hamlet quite a few times now. No moment sums up the freshness of this production more than when I realised that Laertes doesn’t want to have the duel at the end! I have never seen an interpretation where Laertes has had second thoughts and when asking for a new foil is wanting to swap the poisoned one for another. It changed how I saw that character and made the end so much more powerful. Such unexpected thrills at the theatre are what make it such a wonderful experience.

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13. The RSC’s sound effect of the year that made an auditorium gasp

I only made one trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon this year, which was to see the RSC’s latest production of Julius Caesar and the moment I have not been able to forget was the moment a young boy seemingly had his neck broken. Yes, I know nothing is real on stage, but the sound effect used to create the illusion of murder in that moment was quite shocking!

14. Andrew Garfield bringing a tear to my eye, as he bid the audience a final farewell at the last performance of Angels in America in London

I loved this production, as I’ve already mentioned in my annual round-up and it was very special to be in the audience for the last performance (I was in good company as Mr Cumberbatch was there too). It’s a powerful piece of theatre, but watching Andrew Garfield give those final lines as Prior Walter, talking directly to us, was something I’ll never forget: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

15. Experiencing the wonderful staging of The Great Comet from a stage seat

I didn’t love The Great Comet as a musical, but I could certainly appreciate the staging and the fun of the interaction with the audience when I watched the show from a banquette seat earlier this year. I wasn’t in a position to be picked on, thank god, but I did enjoy some fresh bread to eat and my own little egg shaker to join in with the percussion during the show, not to mention a close up seat for Josh Groban’s gorgeous singing!

16. My horror at the result of my audience’s vote on letting latecomers in to The Majority at the National Theatre

The Majority was a fun theatre experience, requiring each of us in the audience to engage directly in the journey of the performance through a series of votes on our keypads. The most horrifying for me? The narrow victory of those who voted to let latecomers in to the auditorium once the show had started! Fools!

17. My first ever time leaving a show at the interval

I know some people do this often, but I’ve never left a show early. I usually hold on, in the hope I’ll enjoy the second half more. However, on one trip this year, I just couldn’t face it. Ironically, Travesties was a show most people loved and many will no doubt say it was a travesty that I left, but it just wasn’t funny to me and I was bored. Maybe it caught me on an off day.

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So, what were your most memorable, personal theatre moments this year? I’d love to hear them and look forward to finding out what’s in store next year in theatre land!

Photo credits (besides me!): Don Juan In Soho = Helen Maybanks; The Antipodes = Joan Marcus; Groundhog Day/Hamlet = Manuel Harlan; Ian McKellen = Mark Douet; Network = Jan Versweyveld; Out There on the Fried Meat Ridge Road = Gavin Watson; Dear Evan Hansen = Sara Krulwich/The New York Times; Julius Caesar = the RSC; The Majority = Ellie Kurttz; Angels in America = Jason Bell;